NASA Planning For Mars Mission With Deep Space Habitats For Long-Haul Missions

NASA contracted six companies to design deep space habitats capable of housing astronauts during long-haul missions to Mars and beyond this week.

The space agency awarded the design contracts, with a combined value of $65 million, as part the public-private partnership Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships 2 (NextSTEP).

The full-size deep space habitats will be designed and built here on Earth where the agency can test them against the needs of astronauts on missions to the moon or Mars, Jason Crusan, director of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems, said in a statement.

“The next human exploration capabilities needed beyond the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion capsule are deep space, long duration habitation and in-space propulsion. We are now adding focus and specifics on the deep space habitats where humans will live and work independently for months or years at a time, without cargo supply deliveries from Earth.”

The six companies are Bigelow Aerospace, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, NanoRacks, Orbital ATK, and Sierra Nevada Corp. They’ll be expected to contribute 30 percent of the development costs themselves.

The companies will have 24 months to design and build their deep space habitation prototypes so NASA can test them for safety, durability, and ease of use. They’ll be used first on the moon before moving deeper into space, Crusan said in a statement.

“We are now adding focus and specifics on the deep-space habitats where humans will live and work independently for months or years at a time, without cargo supply deliveries from Earth.”

All of the designs will include the core components of a pressurized living area for the crew, environmental controls, and life support systems, but they’ll also be equipped with propulsion and docking technology.

Boeing will develop its module using technology employed on the International Space Station while Lockheed Martin plans on refurbishing a logistics module like the ones used to carry cargo into orbit. Orbital ATK will base its plans on its unmanned Cygnus spacecraft, and the Sierra Nevada Corporation will use its low-Earth orbit plane along with an inflatable module like the BEAM being tested on the ISS.

Ixion Team, a joint venture of three aerospace firms, plans to repurpose a rocket’s launch stage as long-term living quarters capable of supporting astronauts in deep space.

NASA has plans to launch a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s, and Elon Musk intends SpaceX to colonize the red planet, but there’s no guarantee human life can survive the harsh conditions.

The Earth Mars transit would take anywhere from 150 to 300 days depending on the location of the planets, and that causes a few problems for NASA. No one has spent that much time in space before, so the agency isn’t sure how humans will react to the cramped quarters, low gravity, and high levels of radiation. Then, when the astronauts land on the red planet, they’ll need to deal with the completely alien environment.

NASA’s Journey to Mars is behind schedule and over budget, but if the engineers at the space agency intend for it to go forward, they’ll need to find a way to comfortably house the astronauts in deep space.

That’s where Next-STEP and cooperation with private space companies come in.

The space agency is increasingly relying on public-private partnerships to develop the technology and prototype systems needed for future space missions beyond Earth’s orbit, Crusan said in a statement.

“NASA is on an ambitious expansion of human spaceflight, including the Journey to Mars, and we’re utilizing the innovation, skill and knowledge of both the government and private sectors.”

The Next-STEP program is designed to encourage private companies to develop deep space exploration technology.

The private sector is surging ahead with their plans for commercializing space, and an asteroid mining company has already announced plans to launch the first interstellar prospecting mission in Earth’s history.

[Photo by NASA/Getty Images]